In December 2015 Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that all military training, occupations, and units will be open to women to include those found within the special operations forces. (1). Early in 2015 female volunteers were selected to attend the Army’s Ranger School. The first class started in April 2015 with 19 female students. Of the 19, three graduated – after having been recycled through phases a few times. In November 2015 the first officially integrated Ranger class started with five females – all failing in the first week. Did the women have to meet the same standards as men? It is doubtful that MG Scottie Miller (of JSOC fame), the commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, would let the women perform to lower standards. The graduation of the three women likely helped pave the way for later decisions about integrating women into SOF.

The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is ‘all in’ on the concept of women attending special operations training and being assigned to special operations units. In fact, on the same day that SECDEF Carter released his directive in December the commander of USSOCOM, General Joseph Votel (another JSOC alumni), released a video expressing support for the decision (2).

How do the special operators in JSOC, the SEALs, AFSOC, and in U.S. Army Special Forces feel about the decision? According to a RAND Corporation study that USSOCOM commissioned 85% of the rank and file said it was a bad idea. (3). Resistance to the concept centered primarily on the physical demands that SOF operators must endure during combat. While SOF operators were receptive to women in SOF in an enabler role there was great resistance to women as an integral part of a SOF operational team.

In 2013 the Army conducted a survey of women from the reserve and active duty components on their feelings toward entering the combat arms. Of the 30,000 who responded less than 8% said they would want to be in an infantry, armor, artillery, or combat engineer job. (4). While females now have the opportunity to attend these demanding SOF schools there probably isn’t a large number that wish to attend.

CST Assessment and Selection
CST Assessment and Selection at Ft Bragg May 2011. The course was considered challenging. (photo SGT Russell Klika DVIDS)

The U.S. special operations forces have a long history of women in its ranks. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) is one of the organizations from which the U.S. Army Special Forces traces its lineage. During World War II the OSS used female operators behind the lines to conduct guerrilla warfare and intelligence operations. (5). In more modern times the Special Mission Units (SMUs) have women who have graduated from their selection courses and participated in the unit missions overseas. In Afghanistan the teams conducting Village Stability Operations (VSO) and units of JSOC conducting ‘night raids’ were often augmented with Cultural Support Teams (CSTs) to help in interacting with the Afghan female population. (6).

CST Member of SOTF-East
CST Member of SOTF-East May 2011 (photo SPC Patricia Ramirez)

The train has left the station. The SECDEF has made his decision. The generals, admirals, and senior enlisted of the special operations community either endorsed the decision or put up a less than robust fight. There were no resignations of men wearing stars. Can enough women successfully pass BUDS, the “Q” course, Combat Diver School, Ranger School, and other SOF courses to make a real difference? And if so, will they enhance or degrade the SOF unit’s effectiveness? Time will tell.


  1. See “Carter Opens all Military Occupations, Positions to Women”DoD News Release, December 3, 2015.
  2. Watch the 8-minute long video by USSOCOM posted on on December 3, 2015.
  3. See “Special Ops Survey Showed 85% Opposed Serving With Women”Defense One, December 4, 2015.
  4. Read “Few Army women want combat jobs, survey finds”USA Today, February 25, 2014.
  5. Watch a video about women serving in the OSS during World War II entitled “Project Diane” that is posted on the USASOC website.
  6. The Cultural Support Teams were hand-picked females who attended a selection and qualification course conducted at Fort Bragg and who were subsequently deployed to Afghanistan as enablers to SOF teams. There were between 2-4 members in each CST.